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10/10/2018
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Russian Hacking Groups Intersect in Recent Cyberattacks

Two different hacking teams best known as Turla and Fancy Bear employed the same stealthy attack method in an unusual overlap of hacking activity.

A rare overlap in malware delivery and targets recently between two separate and traditionally very different Russian hacking groups appears to indicate some type of pooling of their resources.

Researchers from Kaspersky Lab spotted Turla – aka Venemous Bear/Snake/Uroburos – using the same method of malware delivery used by Zebrocy, a subgroup of Sofacy – aka Fancy Bear/APT 28 – with each going after some of the same geopolitical targets in central Asia.

Specifically, Turla dropped its JavaScript-based KopiLuwak backdoor malware in much the same manner as Zebrocy had dropped its malware a month before in other attacks. 

Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky's global research and analysis team, says it's either that the two groups have access to the same developer resources or they're working together. "We still believe they are separate groups," he says. In its latest attack campaign, Turla used an LNK file with PowerShell encryption code that was nearly identical to that of Zebrocy's, according to Raiu.

Zebrocy is a lesser-known arm of Sofacy. "Zebrocy is interesting because there's very little talk about them. Most big, high-profile attacks are attributed to Sofacy," he says.

Turla, which at one time was mostly targeting Ukraine, now appears more focused on foreign affairs targets in regions including East Asia as well as Europe. It's one of the oldest and longest-running advanced hacking teams in the world and is known to be stubbornly resilient.

"One thing about Turla is at some point once they get detected, they get rid of the malware, and in six months they are back," Raiu says. Sometimes they plant five or six different pieces of malware in a target's network that's often well-hidden, including PowerShell and JavaScript-based malware.

"They have so many tools at their disposal," including polymorphic JavaScript implants that are difficult to detect, Raiu says.

Unlike Sofacy, which stays the course even after it gets outed, Turla is known to shift tactics once it's discovered.

Raiu's team discovered a new version of Turla's KopiLuwak malware dropper going after targets in Afghanistan and Syria. The attackers in their spear-phishing attacks deployed malicious Windows LNK files with PowerShell, which decoded and installed KopiLuwak, the actual payload. That PowerShell-based installer was a dead ringer for the one used by Zebrocy a month ago, according to the researchers.

"The most recent evolution in the KopiLuwak life cycle was observed in mid-2018 when we observed a very small set of systems in Syria and Afghanistan being targeted with a new delivery vector," Kaspersky researchers wrote in a paper they presented at the Virus Bulletin conference in Montreal last week. "In this campaign the KopiLuwak backdoor was encoded and delivered in a Windows shortcut (.lnk) file. The lnk files were an especially interesting development because the powershell code they contain for decoding and dropping the payload is nearly identical to that utilized by the Zebrocy threat actor a month earlier."

Meanwhile, Raiu says all appears quiet on the election hacking scene. He hasn't seen any hacking attempts by Sofacy or others related to the US midterm elections at this point. "If we were to see something nowadays, it would probably influence operations mostly. But we haven't seen anything significant in terms of malware operations [here]," he says.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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